In sci-fi and horror movies, the genre typically announces itself right out the gate.
Maybe there’s a cold open where someone gets slain by an off-screen force. Maybe everything seems normal in that first scene until a sudden scare or twist. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression, which is why we see so many strong statements in opening scenes in these kinds of films.
But there’s something to be said for a “slow-boil” sci-fi movie, something that seems completely innocuous for a good portion before suddenly veering into the fantastical... which is exactly the case in this 2017 indie sci-fi horror, now streaming on Netflix.
From director Clay Staub, Devil’s Gate may sound like quite the demonic title, but it’s actually just in reference to the small North Dakota town where an FBI agent teams up with a local deputy in the search for a missing woman and child. The cast is a reputable who’s who of regular sci-fi fixtures: FBI agent Daria Francis played by 12 Monkeys star Amanda Schull, Deputy Colt Salter by X-Men’s Iceman Shawn Ashmore, and even a cameo by Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes.
Together, Francis and Salter investigate the disappearance of Maria Pritchard and her son Jonah, who her sister said was her “miracle baby” after six miscarriages. It seems the clear culprit is Maria’s husband, Jackson. Played by This is Us star Milo Ventimiglia, Jackson is a religious zealot with a strange obsession with so-called “angels.”
These angels are later revealed to us through the capture of one in Jackson’s basement, a hostage he plans to exchange for his wife and child after their abduction. But while that mystery is easily solved, the questions of who these creatures are and what they’re doing on this remote farm are actually a lot more complex than first thought, with the answers spanning entire generations.
One of the most unique elements of Devil’s Gate is the color grading. As the situation gets increasingly dire, the color saturation is sapped from the image, almost giving the entire film a noir effect. When there are splashes of color, it's a vibrant, blood-red. It’s not an obvious technique, but it’s an effective one.
The film ends with a harsh commentary, one that packs a punch even as it could have used more time to breathe. In the film’s North Dakota setting, the effects of colonialism and interference with Native American lands are very clear. In an alien invasion story, especially one so intimate as Devil’s Gsate, Agent Francis has to come to terms with the fact maybe these aliens aren’t invading — maybe they’re colonizing.
Devil’s Gate is now streaming on Netflix.